“Jamal Murray lives for this.” – Michael Malone
Jamal Murray – A+
If only the Nuggets had Jamal Murray, indeed. Murray returned to the Suns – Nuggets matchup and picked up right where he left off against his favorite opponent. So much has changed on either side of the fence since 27 was last involved, and the Nuggets have spent the week denying any notions of revenge. They can and should say that. I don’t believe it for one second regarding Murray.
Phoenix opted to place Josh Okogie back in the starting lineup. He took the Murray assignment, which meant he was in for a long night. Murray ran Okogie through a gauntlet of screens, mainly from Jokić, and Denver had no trouble springing their point guard free. When he separated, he capitalized. If the Nuggets created a favorable switch, he went to work in isolation. If he saw a window to hit Jokić, he hit it. The bottom line is Phoenix could not guard Denver’s pick-and-roll, and the other role players could not guard Murray in any context. Landry Shamet? Food. Damion Lee? Good luck. Chris Paul? Brother, it’s 2023.
Murray was also excellent defensively, digging deep despite his monster workload. He fed off the crowd all night. The crowd fed off him. It’s a beautiful relationship when Denver’s cruising at home.
Murray looked ready to play four more quarters during his postgame availabilities. His competitive mood hadn’t subsided as he derided the media in general terms for their doubt. “I don’t know how many times I gotta prove myself for y’all to believe in my game,” he told TNT. And he hadn’t simmered down when he spoke to us at the podium. It’s a good sign. Murray’s too deep in the zone to be tethered to reality regarding feedback. He’ll take the disrespect from the national media, manufacture it from the local media if he has to, and turn it all into fuel for the fire. Get out of his way, or get torched.
Nikola Jokić – A-
Murray was dominant in Game One, and Jokić played an essential role in his success. For all the talk of Denver’s inability to defend a pick-and-roll, Phoenix’s utter inability to do the same was the night’s story. Jokić turned Okogie’s job into a seeming labor violation. It looked unfair as he chased Murray through and around the big Serb’s myriad screens.
Surprisingly, almost shockingly, Jokić struggled around the rim. Perhaps the wrist was bothering him. Maybe our expectations ballooned beyond reason. He was able to knock down all five of his free throws and shot 1 of 2 from three-point range. All told, he tallied 24 points on 9 of 21 from the field.
Jokić made his most significant impact on the glass. He inhaled 19 boards in 32:55 played. Eight were on offense—the typically clustered pogo-stick rebounds he collects before putting it home. However, some of the second-chance points eluded him this time around. Denver left a large handful of such points on the board. It’s a battleground they should win and one way they can improve in game two. The rebounds are there. They must take advantage going forward. Particularly Jokić. He’s just too much for this Suns team to handle inside.
Aaron Gordon – A
There’s been no rest for AG in these playoffs. After playing up a position dealing with Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, his new primary assignment is Kevin Durant. It’s an unenviable position, although one Gordon is embracing, Murray told us after the game. Durant came out firing, scoring 19 points on 9 of 14 shooting in the first half. We can nitpick some possessions, but there’s not much you can do when Durant’s in a zone like that—not much, but stick with it.
Durant would eventually tire and take only five shots in the second half. Gordon never relented, although far more went into that than one-on-one defense. Defenders stunted and swiped as KD drove, Bruce Brown picked up some of the slack for AG, and Denver stayed aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage unless Paul initiated. Durant finished the game with seven turnovers.
It helped, too, that AG didn’t miss a single shot in the first half. He dropped 16 points on 6 of 6 from the field, 2 of 2 from deep, and 2 of 2 from the free throw line. Both threes were wide-open—Durant dared Gordon to make him pay. He obliged.
When the dust settled and the starters left the floor with three minutes remaining, Gordon’s production was there for all to see. He finished with 23 points, six rebounds, and only one turnover. He shot 9 of 13 from the field and 3 of 4 from deep. The Nuggets crushed while he was on the floor.
Michael Porter Jr. – B
Porter was directly responsible for an unfortunate start to the third quarter. One which prompted an early timeout and impassioned speech from Michael Malone. He implored the Nuggets, particularly Porter, to understand the moment. To understand the stakes. To “get (their) shit together.” Now that the nadir is documented, we can move on and call Porter’s defensive performance for what it was: a massive improvement from his last series against the Suns.
Denver didn’t look to Porter much on the offensive end, except for the start of the second quarter. Denver trailed by a slim margin while Jokić and Murray sat on the bench. The Nuggets needed Porter’s scoring. He answered the call.
Porter took Torrey Craig off the dribble and finished at the rim to get warmed up. His next touch, he stared Deandre Ayton down, put the ball on the floor, and stepped back for 3. Cash. With Shamet guarding him, Porter demanded the ball in the mid-post before facing up and draining a jumper. Those were crucial minutes as the Nuggets survived without their 1-2 punch.
Porter only logged 30 minutes. His rough start to the third might have put him in Malone’s dog house in the second half. Still, Denver cruised with MPJ on the floor. He finished the game +29, leading all players. On a final note, Porter avoided turning the ball over again. It’s the seventh straight time he’s done that in the playoffs. Steady as it goes. Steady is the word.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – C+
Pope logged the least time on the court of all Denver starters. He had the pleasure of chasing Devin Booker around the floor, perhaps the best player league-wide in round one. Pope achieved mixed results in the role, although Denver did a good job overall, limiting him to a very good performance rather than a transcendent one. The Nuggets played Booker aggressively in the pick-and-roll—bringing the big up to the level to prevent him from walking into his beloved mid-range jumpers. He still got to his spots, but Denver took away most of the easy buckets. Some of that credit goes to Bruce Brown, who closed over KCP.
Bruce Brown – A-
Brown earned the DPOG chain in game one. He worked hard to make life difficult for Booker and picked Durant’s pockets twice, relying on his first-hand experience with a former teammate. It was all about knowing tendencies for Brown. Booker wants to go to his left and pull up for the “middy,” Brown told the media after the game. He’s going to hit those shots, too. But you’ve got to be unrelenting, he told us. You’ve got to make it difficult.
Brown contributed on the other end as well. He scored 14 points by attacking the rim, which he insisted, at the podium, has always been his game. He likes to attack. He wants to run. These are welcome qualities off the bench. Brown’s been phenomenal to start these playoffs.
Jeff Green – C-
Green was AG’s tag-team partner in round one. The two took turns pinning KAT to the mat. Green didn’t enjoy the same success against Durant. It got tough to watch. Still, Green grabbed four rebounds, a mark of high effort from the 36-year-old. Four is roughly the ceiling in that department. He also knocked down a big three.
Christian Braun – C-
Braun looked flustered for perhaps the first time in his nascent NBA career. He checked off the hustle-related items on his to-do list. He recorded four steals and grabbed five rebounds. But he got ahead of himself with the ball in his hands. He shot 0 of 5 from the field and turned it over twice.